MANCHESTER, NH—Last Wednesday, Newt Gingrich was featured in the inaugural "substance over soundbites" candidate forum at St. Anslem's College. These events would transcend the campaign season's histrionics, explained the moderator; with less than a week until the New Hampshire primary, the time for headline-grabbing gimmicks had long passed.
So Gingrich first addressed the subject of Ron Paul, remarking that he'd find it "virtually impossible" to vote for him against Barack Obama. As justification for this view, Gingrich posited a grim scenario: under a Paul presidency, American cities would be vulnerable to nuclear attack—ultimately leading to "the end of democracy as we know it." He then offered a characterization of Paul's position on the Middle East: "Eh, if Israel disappears, that's not a big problem."
"The guy doesn't have a clue about the Iranians," Gingrich told me after the event. "And says publicly he doesn't care if they get a nuclear weapon."
On Thursday, at each of Gingrich's four campaign events throughout New Hampshire, he (usually without being prompted) leveled more-or-less the same charge. But at an opera house in Littleton, NH, a man named Jon Anderson, who identified as a retired nuclear physicist with the Department of Defense, pressed Gingrich on the matter.
"I believe that the idea that Ron Paul has," Gingrich said, "that it doesn't matter if the Iranians have a nuclear weapon, is unbelievably dangerous to the survival of the United States," adding that "most" recent sectarian bombings in Iraq since the U.S.'s withdrawal have been "funded by the Iranians."
Anderson told me afterwards that while he admired Ron Paul in some respects, he ultimately concurred with Gingrich. "Somebody once said the road to hell was paved with good intentions," he said. "But I think his good intentions in this case could create some serious, serious issues for the American people, including losing an American city. And that scares me."
The proliferation of destructive materials in general was a top concern for Anderson. "I even got on the Internet and found all the parts I need to put a small nuclear device together," he said, noting that he could create a device on his kitchen table that would impact a 20-mile radius. "I wouldn't live very long, because I'd be radiated."
Shortly after casually charging that Paul's foreign policy vision could lead to the obliteration of an entire American metro area, Gingrich toured a nearby candy store. He marveled at the variety on display, admitted to having a "sweet tooth," and took particular note of the "Baby Bottle Pops." When a reporter quipped that Mitt Romney is alleged to have flipped-flopped even on his favorite candy flavor, Gingrich said, "The man has a right to change his mind."
His next stop was a pizza parlor. On the walk over, I asked Gingrich if he believed a Ron Paul presidency would endanger Israel. "Yes," Gingrich said, and kept going. Upon entering the restaurant, he complimented a man on his veal parmesan sandwich. "I have to say, that impresses me."
When the Newt 2012 bus rolled into Lancaster—just across from the Vermont border, in northern New Hampshire—an assortment of Paul supporters, Occupy the North Country demonstrators, and general anti-Gingrich interlocutors (who said they were leaning Romney) greeted him. "He's callin' everybody else a liar, and who's a bigger liar than him?" one of the general anti-Newt people said. "He cheats on his wives. How can you trust somebody like that? I can't."
As Gingrich emerged from his campaign bus (which is plastered with a massive image of his face) the group chanted "Ron Paul! Occupy! Ron Paul! Occupy!"
After the Lancaster townhall, Gingrich posed for photos as usual. One woman requested he hold up a copy of the Coös County Democrat, a small newspaper serving the North Country. In that very issue, I later learned, the editorial team had endorsed Ron Paul; it was one of only three newspapers in the state to do so.
Gingrich's last event of the day was a "Tea Party townhall" in Meredith, NH. A man who said he was 22 years old rose to ask "what hope do I have as a young, hard-working individual?" Gingrich suggested that all young people ought to be concerned about the Iranians striking America. "I suggest you look at the impact of a nuclear weapon going off in Boston," he advised.